Critique of “The man who hated women”: the reign of the censor


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In 1873, a new federal law prohibited the distribution and promotion by the United States Postal Service of “obscene, obscene or lascivious” material. The legislation covered not only dirty postcards and sex toys, but also brochures on contraception and sexual health. A booklet on marital relations or an abortion powder was now considered indecent as an advertisement for a brothel. In “The Man Who Hated Women,” Amy Sohn tells us that the law “has dealt a blow to women’s health for nearly a century.” She argues that the vigorous pursuit of this law represents prudish misogyny that dates back to the Puritan founders of America and still prevails in parts of the country today.

The censor crusader responsible for this cruel initiative, known as the Comstock Law, was Anthony Comstock, a pugnacious tyrant with red mustaches and size 13 boots, a pious congregationalist and staunch supporter of the Victorian ideal of womanhood – the so-called angel in the house. Comstock asserted that “he revered women,” Ms. Sohn tells us, “but he felt that he should dictate how they should lead their lives, and that he was the protector of the natural innocence of women. Born in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1844, he worked for a time as a store clerk but eventually turned to anti-vice activism, offended by what he saw as the moral corruption of Gilded Age New York.

During these years New York was the center of both great wealth and extraordinary poverty. The city was teeming with crime, violence and pornography. Bookstores openly sold charcoal; gambling halls and illegal lotteries have proliferated; and prostitutes roamed the streets. Comstock was particularly outraged by the widespread advertising and the ease of access to contraception and abortion services. These were among the few protections women had against unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of childbirth, but Comstock lumped them together with “sinful” practices. He persuaded the Manhattan branch of the YMCA to form a Committee for the Suppression of Vice, and then, as a representative, went to Washington to lobby for much tougher penalties against peddlers of obscenity.

“To garner support for his lewd act,” writes Ms. Sohn, “Comstock put on the liveliest sex toy exhibition the capital has ever seen.” Politicians crowded into the show, fiddled with the toys and cards, and told him they would pass any law he wanted. The resulting Comstock Act of 1873 passed through Congress unchallenged. Over the next 12 years, 24 state legislatures passed similar “little Comstock laws”.

Shortly after his namesake law was passed, Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to help “enforce federal and state obscenity laws.” Over the next two decades, Comstock led thousands of lawsuits centered on documents as diverse as lottery tickets, pornography, and medical books written by doctors.

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